Course:3: Processing
Lesson:Lesson 2: Arrangement
Topic:Step 1: Research

Step One: Research

Arranging archival collections begins with research and review. It’s vital to know as much as you can and understand the arrangement you want before moving any files. Why? Because it’s very hard to “undo” any refiling and rearranging once you have started. It’s better to research and review the records thoroughly before physically moving anything.

The first thing you need to do is look up the accession record and learn what you can about the records -- where did they come from? How were they acquired? How much is there?

Then you need to begin learning about the creator of the records--What did the person/group do? Why did they create the records? Answers to these questions will help you understand what is and isn’t important in the records.

Pre-Processing Checklist

To help you, we have a pre-processing checklist for you to use.

The pre-processing checklist asks you to answer three questions to help you understand more about the creator and creation of the records.

  1. Who was the creator or accumulator of the records?
    Learn who created the records and why the records were created. Do the records have an “attitude” that may affect the content and interpretation of the information in them? 
  2. What do you know about the people who created and used the records?
    Learn about the person who created the records: lifespan, birthplace, vocations, education, special events, family life. Look for biographical information. Learn about the organization that created the records: mission, functions, dates of operation, special events, board members, and locations.
  3. What do you know about the time, place and subjects of the records?
    Research the subject that is the focus of the records. Learn about the time period in which the records were created, events that transpired, and the setting or locale in which they were created.

You can download a copy of this checklist to use here.

Locating the Information

Where are you going to find this kind of information? Sources include newspapers, biographical dictionaries, local histories, census records, and organizational histories. People who knew the individual or worked for the organization may also be able to suggest sources.  

Once you know who created the records and you have learned as much about them as possible, it’s time to use your notes and knowledge and begin the actual organizing and arranging of the records. But don’t start unloading boxes yet!


Provenance research is the first step in processing a collection. It is the first step in understanding the collection so you arrange it properly and create a good finding aid.


Keep all of your background notes and research materials in a processing folder.

Click here to access the pre-processing checklist.

 various information sources
Learn as much as you can about the creator of the records.